On Tuesday morning, my friend Marsha invited me to come with her to an aerobic class at the local wellness center in Selma before walking over to be with my mother-in-law. There were about 10 women in the class, all of them older than me; the instructor was a retired dentist, a charming man. They couldn’t have been more gracious and kind in their welcome. The day before, Annaw’s hospice case manager dropped in for a visit, bringing with her a newly-hired nurse who was obviously in the middle of her orientation process. Shortly after they left, I went out to get something from the front desk and ended up walking behind them. The case manager was obviously filling the new nurse in on some of the details about Annaw and I heard her say, “I just love Miss Juanita to pieces”. Been a while since I heard that expression said for real. Everywhere I turned, I experienced that almost sugar sweet graciousness the South takes pride in.
The other truth about the South was there in the silences, the absences, the subtexts. None of the residents at the assisted living facility are anything but white and privileged. There was no person of color in any of the social functions I attended. One of the funniest, most charming women residents at CH was sharp-tongued, imperious and sarcastic every time she spoke to one of the staff people of color. The lines between privilege and poverty, power and marginalization are clearly drawn almost everywhere you look. I don’t think I saw a single Latino person walking down the street either in Orange Beach or Selma—you can tell the draconian immigration laws of the state have had their desired effect.
I am challenged to re-examine not only the meaning of home, but also the contours of ministry when I consider what it would mean to live back in Selma. As a very young girl, when I dreamed of coming to live in the United States, I always insisted I’d come but never, ever, live in Alabama. Of course, that was blown out of the water almost immediately. Now, a new question emerges for me: what would ministry look like for me, if I were to end up back in Alabama?
On and off in the past few months, I’ve been engaged in a conversation about tolerance with one of my parishioners. It started with a quote he’d shared—something to the effect that “Tolerance is an excuse for not discovering that what we believe and hold as true might be wrong”. When I consider what’s happening in our country, it seems to me that we swing wildly between a kind of values imperialism and a tolerance that isn’t really that, but rather, a fear of meaningful, transforming encounter and conversation.
Right now, the most civil thing I know how to do about the political “conversation” that’s going on leading up to the elections is avoid that topic almost completely, except with people I trust and, more than likely, have a lot in common with me. My mother-in-law keeps Fox News on, at a high volume, almost 24-7, and what I did, over and over again, during my three day visit was stand up and walk away when I simply could not stand to listen any more. Of course, I couldn’t engage my mother-in-law. But I couldn’t even sit still to listen to the people talking on Fox—too offended, too overwhelmed, too filled with despair to stay engaged. When Sherod and I broached the possibility of moving to Selma after Sherod retires, my dear friend Marsha ever so gently asked me if I could stand to live in an area where there are many, many people on the “extreme right” (her words). I didn’t see any Obama Biden lawn signs or bumper stickers the whole time I was in Alabama. I saw plenty of Romney-Ryan signs though, and awful billboards about Obama. I find all that daunting.
So the question really is: what would it mean to be a priest in that kind of space? I don’t have many answers yet, but I do have some folks whose footsteps I can follow. Perhaps the person who most inspires me in this respect is Will D. Campbell. I first came across his work back in ’84, when I started seminary at Sewanee. He is a renegade Southern Baptist preacher from Mississippi who wrote a memoir called Forty Acres and a Goat. One of the wonderful voices of eccentricity and courage in the South, he tells the story of how he first worked with Martin Luther King and the Southern Leadership Conference, and then found himself building a strong and pretty amazing ministry among members of the Ku Klux Klan. By the time I got to know of him and his work, he was living in Mt Juliet, TN, on a farm that included a small guest space where people who needed to could come and hang out at the farm to visit, talk, heal and rediscover themselves and their Creator.
As I reflect on what that might come to mean for me, I can hold on to a few strands of the ministry I am engaged in right now. One of the biggest gifts and challenges of this ministry is patience. It takes me a while to get past fear and defensiveness—especially my own. As long as I am in that space of fear and defensiveness, I am at war, perhaps a very civil war, but nonetheless a war, where most of what I am doing is about winners and losers, the sting of adrenaline that comes from defining so much in terms of life and death. The lessons I’ve been learning about hosting grief and loss apply here as well. Sometimes, all I can do is sit with my own self and someone else rather than plan and prepare the escape. Presence. It’s one of those clichés of ministry that I dismiss at my own peril.
I got up very early this morning to prepare a special bilingual worship booklet because on Sunday I have 3 baptisms. As I read the baptismal covenant, first in Spanish, and then in English, it struck me that it all starts with recognizing each other’s humanity. Will Campbell has known that for a long time and inspires me to learn the same. I feel a glimmer of hope that if we do end up in Alabama, I can come to know that in yet another way and therefore, be able to serve where the need is. And then it strikes me: I’m not in Alabama any longer. It is still early in the morning here in Fort Lauderdale and there is a whole lot I need to do as a priest here and now. So that’s where I’m called to be.